June 10, 2013 | Comment

MOOCs, Hype, and the Precarious State of Higher Ed: Futurist Bryan Alexander

Category: Digital Learning
infographic showing the different negotiable meanings of the letters in MOOC

Does it continue to make sense to go to college when the sticker price of a college education is soaring, the amount of debt college students are taking on – even for the non-elite universities and what were formerly affordable public universities – is severely constraining their choices post-graduation, and job prospects for new graduates are dismal? A year ago, I talked with Anya Kamenetz, who delved into these issues in her book, DIY U. Since then, the ballyhooed arrival of free MOOCs into this frightening intersection of economic, intellectual, and social forces has ignited debate about the future of universities. The Reedie in me asks: What is the place of liberal arts ideals in an atmosphere like this?

Liberal arts education is not just about the transfer of cultural knowledge; the liberal arts are often said to be about learning how to learn and how to participate in public discourse vital to the growth of knowledge and health of democracies. Certainly, our civilization depends on those who know the nerves of the face and understand how Ohm’s law applies to microcircuits. It also depends on the existence of a broad and informed discourse about topics that don’t have exact answers, in which the answers are not as important as is widespread, rational and civil discussion and argument about them – about what it means to be a citizen, a democracy, a human.

Transfer of knowledge is not going away and neither is the need for institutions that perform that task. Possibly, and especially for fields such as mathematics or computer programming in which there are exactly correct or incorrect answers, brick and mortar schooling might be in some part supplanted by machine learning in the cloud – whether publicly provided or provided for profit. Can online communication and machine learning also supplant the small seminar that digs into philosophy and literature, semiotics and ethics, politics and civil society? “What is the role of the human teacher in an era of machine learning?” is a perfectly liberal arts question to ask.

At the moment, MOOCs are still in the early part of the hype cycle and discourse is dominated by Manichaean fears of robots replacing professors or venture capitalists taking over higher education. (Although the discourse is not without thoughtful pieces about the pedagogy of MOOCs or  forecasts that attempt to see beyond the hyperbole). When it comes to speaking about the nuances, the many shades of meaning between the extreme positions, and especially about the role of liberal arts at a time when digital media and learning offer such great promises – and to some, great threats – I knew where to turn. Bryan Alexander, who I previously interviewed about emerging learning technologies for this blog, is the senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. The ensuing video conversation is longer than usual – around 24 minutes – but if you want to get past the more superficial debates about MOOCs and take a more finely-tuned glimpse at possible futures, you will find it worth your time. This interview will be followed in my next blog post by a conversation with a passionate (and in online learning circles, legendary) practitioner who is bringing the ideas Alexander is laying out for us to life in a residential college and, simultaneously, a global online learning community.

Banner image credit: mathplourde http://www.flickr.com/photos/mathplourde/8620174342